University of Kansas

KU basketball needed a leader. It found one Saturday in an unexpected place

Ochai Agbaji, Dedric Lawson and Devon Dotson talk about the Jayhawks’ win over Texas Tech

KU players Ochai Agbaji, Dedric Lawson and Devon Dotson talk about the Jayhawks' win over Texas Tech Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse
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KU players Ochai Agbaji, Dedric Lawson and Devon Dotson talk about the Jayhawks' win over Texas Tech Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse

Dewanna King knew the phone call was coming earlier this week; their conversations always seemed to turn back to Kansas basketball.

Her son was a huge fan. His latest Instagram photo showed him posing in black shirt, smiling, with an effort made to show off a flashy gold-chain Jayhawk that rested just above his heart.

“The guys have got to lock in,” son told mother, frustrated after KU’s second straight loss earlier this week. “They don’t need to get frustrated or worry about what people are saying.”

There was good reason for that.

“We,” he said, “went through a similar thing last year.”

King didn’t know it at the time, but talking this out over the phone wasn’t going to be enough for her son.

Devonté Graham decided he had to do more.

Maybe we should have known this was coming. Maybe, after KU coach Bill Self called for more player leadership after his team’s loss to Texas on Tuesday, we should have known that call for help would be heard outside the Jayhawks’ locker room as well.

“You hear all the time, a player-coached team is better than a coach-coached team,” Self said Tuesday. “Now we don’t have players coaching the team probably as much as we like.”

That changed Saturday in KU’s 79-63 victory over Texas Tech.

The reason for that? KU had a leader emerge ... one who’s playing in the NBA, with no college eligibility remaining.

Just minutes before Saturday’s game, coaches shuffled the KU players into the team’s film room. When the monitor was turned on, there was Graham, his video a bit shaky on the screen because he was holding his phone during a Facetime call.

The former Jayhawk, who had his own Charlotte Hornets game coming about 3 1/2 hours later, gave the pregame pep talk.

Self recalled Graham saying this: “We never passed up open shots. You guys pass them up all the time. Shoot it! I don’t care what Coach says. Shoot the ball.’”

Self smiled after the game, when thinking about that moment.

“(The players) listen to him more than they listen to me,” he said.

It was a good thing for KU this day, and also a needed message moving forward.

The Jayhawks, while playing without Udoka Azubuike, were going to have to create more efficient offense with their four-guard look. The simplest way to get there was a twofold plan: moving Dedric Lawson more to the perimeter while also shooting threes with added frequency and confidence.

KU played to that exceptionally against Texas Tech on Saturday. The Jayhawks didn’t shy away from threes — just as Graham suggested — and knocked down 13 of 30 while making the Red Raiders pay for their sagging defense.

“The looks were open,” said Dotson, who was 3 for 5 from deep, “and I’ll take them if they’re open and I’ll keep shooting.”

The Jayhawks’ new five-out look also opened up driving lanes and turned guards Dotson, Quentin Grimes and Charlie Moore into the most aggressive versions of themselves. KU had 19 assists on 27 field goals, with the team’s assist percentage the second-highest it’s been all season.

Dotson said he’d received an extra pick-me-up too. Just after the Texas loss, he got a text from Graham that was an entire paragraph.

“He just said, ‘It’s going to be all right man. Just stay with it,’” Dotson said. “He just gave me words of encouragement from the point-guard position, because he did a great job at it.”

Lawson, who was Graham’s roommate last year, also had heard from his buddy in recent days while chatting through social media.

“He’s a good dude. He loves this place more than anybody I’ve ever met here,” Lawson said. “He’s the guy who wants us to win more than anybody.”

For the first time in a while, KU’s team looked galvanized Saturday. Part of it had to be Friday’s announcement of a two-year NCAA suspension for Silvio De Sousa, which brought the guys closer in a common sympathy. Some of it also could have been Friday’s injury to Marcus Garrett, which left the team even more short-handed before one of the biggest games of the season.

At least some of credit, though, should go to an outside source, one with a new job and a new life in a new place who still cared about the team more than anyone could expect.

Self likes to say every roster becomes a “team” at a different point in the season. Saturday felt like it could have been that for these Jayhawks, the moment when individual players come together for good.

If that indeed happens, KU’s players had help this time.

And if KU wins a 15th straight Big 12 title in a few weeks, it’ll be best to not forget about Devonté Graham’s assist.

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Jesse Newell — he’s won an EPPY for best sports blog and previously has been named top beat writer in his circulation by AP’s Sports Editors — has covered KU sports since 2008. His interest in sports analytics comes from his math teacher father, who handed out rulers to Trick-or-Treaters each year.